Yo Quiero Dos Coca Colas Por Favor

by Matthew Karren


“Oh wow, yeah, those are really visible.”

I rolled my sleeves back down.

“How did you get those?” he asked.

I explained that when you’re walking the pilgrimage, you try to stay out of the heat of the day. To do that, you wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning and walk your 25km to the next destination. If everything goes according to plan, you get there at 1 in the afternoon and you will have just missed the 31 celsius weather that comes on in the afternoon. However, when you’re walking due west that early in the morning, and the sun rises in the east, you constantly have the sun at your back which translates into ridiculous tan lines on your neck, arms and calves.

My tan lines, as well as the half healed scars on my feet had become conversation starters while I was attending a youth camp about a month later.

Graduation from high school can be harder than it seems. Students can get so wrapped up in the idea of having finished school, and finally being able to leave, that they fail to realize how much structure school creates in your life. As soon as there is no daily schedule, no homework, no deadlines, and no school after the summer, they start feeling pretty lost. I was one of those students.

To prevent stress from all these crazy and sudden changes, me and my father wanted to plan a trip for the week after my last exam. He needed a vacation, and I needed something to do while waiting for my results. We narrowed our options down to a handful of interesting places we could visit, and we finally settled on walking a large part of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

I didn’t bother doing any research about the history of this pilgrimage beforehand like my dad, because I was studying for my exams. Instead I had to pick it all up from conversation with other pilgrims on the journey. I learned that the reason the clam shell was the symbol of the pilgrimage was because Saint James, the biblical apostle of Jesus Christ, was shipwrecked off the western coast of Spain, and did not survive. When his body washed up on shore, it is said to have been covered in large clam shells.

I learned why some of the pilgrims argued that the road to Santiago should start in Aachen, Germany instead of St. Jean, France where most people decided to start in the modern day. They argued that in 812, the great Frankish king Charlemagne, who had recently been crowned Holy Roman Emperor, and who lived in his court in Aachen, decided to visit the grave of Saint James in Santiago as a pilgrim. Since then the Catholic church has regarded the pilgrimage to Santiago as the most important, and will even offer full indulgences to pilgrims during the years when St. James day falls on a Sunday.

On an exceptionally difficult walk down a mountain and through scorching heat, we passed through a city which had been a historic stronghold of the Knights Templar, who had taken it upon themselves to guard the religious pilgrims on the perilous road to Santiago. We sat in the shade of the buildings sipping our coca colas and marvelling at the impressive castle.

At one point I asked my dad why there seemed to be so many Koreans walking the pilgrimage in comparison to other asian nationalities. He explained that about a century ago, the pilgrimage was almost never walked anymore, until a man decided to walk it and write a book about it. The book created a resurgence in popularity, and by some chance caught on in Korea much more than in other asian countries. We figured out that the Camino de Santiago was to Koreans what Paris is to the Japanese.

I started learning more than just the history of the Camino. I learned that walking over 300 kilometers in fairly new hiking boots is a terrible idea. The fact that we had to completely quit walking halfway to our destination one day, the fact that I now have no fear in popping my own blisters, and the fact that my feet still aren’t fully healed all attest that this was maybe the hardest lesson I had to learn.

Another lesson we were forced to learn was not to trust our guidebook. Whoever wrote the thing must’ve been slightly mislead. On our day walking up the Cantabrian mountains, we had planned to stop in a place called Foncebadón at the top of the mountain. The guidebook had led us to believe that it would be much bigger than it actually was. Even though there were spectacular views from the terrace of the café, the town wasn’t much more than the café. Later that day we were convinced that we would be able to stop in a place called Manjarín, very close to where the descent down the mountains began. At one point we saw a couple of rundown barns and a small ‘refugio’ in the place where Manjarín was supposed to be. Apparently it was so small it didn’t even have a sign coming into town. Luckily we were having a good day and we were able to go halfway down the mountain to the next proper village, but we vowed not to trust the guidebook too much after that day.

I learned not to be too uncomfortable around other people, and not to worry too much about privacy. If we stayed in a room with another fifty people in bunk beds, we wouldn’t care. I started not caring about their loud nightly noises (even though my dad had a bit of a harder time with that). I learned not to be too weirded out by lacy women’s underwear hanging from my bed, which belonged to the woman in the bunk under me.

I tripled my knowledge of Spanish on the Camino. Up until then I knew ‘Hola,’ ‘Gracias,’ and a wide variety of Spanish names for different kinds of Mexican food. Now I can say, ‘Yo no sé,’ ‘Yo quiero dos Coca-Colas por favor,’ ‘Nosotros somos peregrinos,’ ’Hola,’ ‘Gracias,’ and a wide variety of Spanish names for different kinds of Mexican food.

Finally, I learned a lot about myself. I learned how to make my mind slow down. I learned how to be almost completely disconnected from technology and the internet. I learned how to keep going through pain. I learned to appreciate a great many things that I didn’t have while on the road. I learned that I can keep going for another 10km if I’ve had another Coca Cola and a plate of Tortilla de Patatas. I learned how to paint Spain. I learned how to have a meaningful conversation with a complete stranger.

The funny thing is, I hadn’t realized that I had learned all of this until I was back home.

Conscripts and Grandmothers

by V. M. Karren

Val with Conscripts.jpg

No war has ever been, is, nor ever will be glorious. Those who portray war as glorious have not lived through a war that took their own home, destroyed their factory or farm or took their only son or grandson.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, campaigns for independence and sovereignty of different ethnic groups within the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Azerbaijan have created both hot and cold conflicts that have grabbed the international headlines. For those in the west, Russia’s annexation of The Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and the wars in Chechnya in 1995 and 2000 have been widely reported in the press.

The first of two Chechen wars in the post-Soviet period began in December 1994 when the Russian government tried quietly to put down a rebellion and coup which had been orchestrated by  local separatists, lead by a former Soviet Air Force general named Dhozkar Dudayev. Moscow did not want to call the attention of the world to the growing spectre of civil war in Russia, and hoped for a quick ‘mopping up’ operation by sending in troops to restore order after a short military blockade of the provincial borders. Unfortunately, Russian intelligence organisations grossly underestimated the resolve, organisation and readiness of the Chechen militias and suffered an embarrassing defeat with the complete destruction of a brigade and the death or capture of all of its soldiers sent in to establish government control of the provincial capital of Grozny.

After the humiliation of the Russian army in Grozny, on January 5th, 1995, the Kremlin sent the big guns into Chechnya: numerous armoured columns, war planes and helicopter gun ships to systematically and mercilessly destroy the capital city. I listened to Boris Yeltsin announce this to the world from an airport television as I prepared to board a flight from Seattle to Moscow for what was to be an indefinite stay in Russia, in another provincial capital: Nizhny Novgorod.

By April the seriousness and cruelty of the Russian civil war in Chechnya was beginning to be felt by the mothers and grandmothers of the country, and they were beginning to demand that their children be sent home. When too many of the soldiers began returning home in pine boxes, busloads of mothers and grandmothers began travelling to the regions surrounding the conflict zone as rumours were heard that the Chechens were allowing only mothers across the front lines to take their captured young army conscripts home with them. The Russian authorities tried with all their might, except for turning their guns on these determined women, to stop them from crossing the front lines to find their sons and grandsons.

In any war there is immense personal suffering on both sides. Nobody is ever ‘winning’ a war, no matter what the generals or propaganda machines tell those back at home. There are only conquerors and defenders…no winners. It was a mild spring evening in Nizhny Novgorod when I came to understand how the mothers and grandmothers of Russia were suffering from the conflict that their young sons were fighting thousands of miles away.

I was on my way home from university lectures in the old city centre and had just taken a seat on a half-empty bus that was heading home across the river. One of the last stops that the bus makes is at the top of the steep bluff that overlooks the junction of the Oka and Volga rivers, before descending a windy, bumpy road to the main bridge leading to the opposite side. If you don’t have a seat before this descent, you’d best have a pole or handrail to hold onto before the bus begins careening down the switchbacks. The experience could be compared to trying to remain standing on a roller coaster. It is advisable for old women, young children and drunk men NOT to stand during this segment of the route.

Near this stop at the top of the hill was a makeshift bazar of fresh foods, bread and whatever other odds and ends a household might need. The bus, only half-full, filled up quickly at this last stop with shoppers lugging bags of vegetables and bread. Those who could find a seat quickly did so. As the bus pulled away from the curb with a jolt, a middle-aged woman began demanding something from me that I didn’t understand. From her body language I took her to be a transit controller who was asking to see my bus ticket. The transit systems in Russia are systematically abused because one can board the bus without buying a ticket first, nor paying the fare on exiting. These plain clothes agents are authorised to spot check passengers for tickets or monthly passes and to give fines to those without one. Many times during very crowded bus rides one is requested to pass money forward to the driver’s cabin, while the bus is moving, in order that a ticket can be purchased and passed back. From where the money comes, and to whom the tickets belong, can sometimes remain a mystery. Taking this demanding woman for a controller, I flashed my monthly bus pass with my student identification at her with a slightly defiant attitude. She apologised in a very humble voice and turned to grab a hand-rail as the bus was beginning to sway around the first switchback down the hillside.

I became puzzled when the same woman did not ask anybody else to show her their bus passes. Her quiet apology was also very odd as the controllers usually just move on to the next passenger, who is hurrying to get out his money, to look as if he is passing it forward to buy a ticket by proxy. It became evident to me that I had misunderstood what she was demanding of me. Wanting to know what had just happened, and what I had represented myself to be, I leaned over and tapped the shoulder of the white haired Babushka sitting next to me. I explained to her that I was a foreigner and that I hadn’t understood why this woman was first so angry at me and then so quickly apologetic and silent.

This sweet white haired grandmother explained to me that this woman wanted my seat, because she didn’t want to stand with her groceries while the bus was speeding down the hillside. She went on to explain that my bus-pass and student ID had been mistaken to be an invalid’s permit to sit in the seats reserved for old folks, pregnant women, women with small children and of course, invalids. Seeing that I was neither old, female, nor carrying a small child I asked why she would have mistaken me for an invalid?

“Oh young man,” she sighed with distress,“the boys from here are starting to come home now from the war in Chechnya and many of them have been badly wounded and have been given an Army pension and invalids’ papers. This woman thinks you are an wounded soldier . . .”      

This grandmother went on to tell me that her youngest grandson, who was my same age had just been called been called up to fight in Chechnya with his brigade and feared that she had seen him alive for the last time. He was twenty-one years old.

She held my hand the rest of the ride home telling me war stories from 1945 and warned me to leave Russia before it was too late. She told me that she had lost her father in the Second World War and she understood that sacrifice, but couldn’t come to grips with sacrificing her grandson to this conflict, not for these leaders, fighting other Russians for no real reason than to save their own pride.

The Power Seat

by V. M. Karren

Boris Yeltsin.jpg

Upon graduation from High School my classmates voted me the person most likely to become the youngest Supreme Court Justice of the United States’ because of my obsession with politics, law and world events. There were many who signed my senior yearbook who expected me to run for the presidency of the United States. My classmates expected me to come very close to the proverbial “power seat”, if not sit in it for 8 years. What very few of these old friends of mine know is that I came very close to that power seat just eight months after we received our first diplomas; in fact I got too close and spoiled everything.

My brush with power came on January 30, 1992, just a few weeks after the Soviet Union had officially been dissolved on Christmas Day 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of that defunct super power, live on international television. My studies had taken me to London, England and I was staying just across Bayswater Road from a long street, lined by foreign embassies on London’s west-end. On many evenings this street was closed to all foot and motor traffic due to visiting foreign dignitaries, kings, queens and prime ministers on the move in motorcades of black limousines with tinted glass and wailing police escorts. On more than one occasion we saw the British prime minister, John Major, speeding away with his own security detail after a meeting and photo session with one visiting president or another. Power surged from this neighbourhood. One could feel influence oozing from the walls and windows if one didn’t speak while walking up and down the street.

The morning of January 30th was a typical London morning in winter; it was not cold enough to freeze anything except one’s nose and ears, with no sunshine. I had plans of doing some artistic photography that morning in the winter fog and I had just loaded my camera with a roll of black and white film when a roommate came crashing in the front door, out of breath, with incredible news!

“In fifteen minutes, Boris Yeltsin will be at the Russian Embassy across the street!” Clint announced.

I ran down the street and crossed Bayswater Road against the light and continued as quickly as I could to join the crowd assembled outside the newly reflagged Russian embassy. London’s Metropolitan Police and Russian secret service agents were in full force making sure that the public stayed behind the barricades. Desperate just to see my hero Yeltsin in the flesh, the man who had altered the course of modern politics, I pushed my way to the first row of onlookers and held my ground.

I had known about and watched Boris Yeltsin for several years as he slowly eroded the legitimacy of the Communist Party in Russia and across the Soviet Union. When he was elected the President of the Russian Federation after resigning from the ruling communist party, the hope of the Velvet Revolution rolling through the Soviet Union itself kept me glued to the news reports as eastern Europe continued to shed the oppression of Moscow’s dictatorship. Having seen Yeltsin openly and publicly oppose the coup d’etat in August of 1991 I fully expected him to be assassinated by the KGB’s Alpha group as he stood atop that tank in Central Moscow in August of 1991, urging Russia and Russians to demand their freedom. In 1991 there was nobody greater in my eyes in Russia, or world politics, than Boris Nicholaevich Yeltsin.

After a long wait in the cold, Yeltsin’s motorcade finally arrived. To my disappointment the car carrying the Siberian bear pulled right up to the door of the embassy. Yelstin, a large, strong man even at sixty years old, was almost physically forced against his will by his bodyguards into the embassy without the crowd being able to even get a decent glimpse of him. He did manage a quick wave to those of us stuck behind the barricades, but was almost knocked over by his security detail when he paused to give us all a quick smile and a thumbs up. Many in the crowd were sorely disappointed with such a brief appearance and grumbled as the crowd broke up. Even many of the journalists and photographers who had come to get a quick photo packed it in and sped away to the next assignment or siting.

Even though many of the curious onlookers began leaving, the security guards and policemen remained. They didn’t move in closer to the house, and the driver of the car who delivered Yeltsin to the embassy never even got out from behind the steering wheel nor turned off the motor. All of these things said to me that he wasn’t staying here long. Twenty minutes passed and a beautiful green, classic Jaguar pulled through the crowd with its lights blinking, flanked by two policemen on motorcycles. Margaret Thatcher appeared on the stairs of the mansion and descended rapidly with her security team, climbed into the emerald Jaguar and sped away with little fanfare. A few more people appeared after Mrs. Thatcher left, but they were faces that I didn’t know and didn’t care about. Each of them simply jumped into a waiting car and sped away with police sirens wailing as they turned onto Bayswater Road, heading back to Whitehall, the British power seat.

I waited for about an hour before the doors of the mansion swung open again. From the street one could not see into the shadowy doorway, but we knew immediately that it was Yeltsin, due to the amount of camera activity from the press pool who had been allowed to wait on the staircase of the house. Flashes, flashes, shouting and more flashes. To my dismay, just like the other visitors, he was rushed through the crowd of photographers and journalists right to his waiting car. The door was flung open by a waiting security agent and stood wide open, ready for him to dive in and speed away in safety.

Yeltsin looked healthy, strong and happy to be alive. His silver head of hair was full, his posture straight and chest puffed out and he strode with confidence and purpose. He was watching and waving to the crowd, shouting “Halloo, Halloo” over the heads of the guards, almost walking on his tip toes to see over their heads. He had not yet grown into the somber, grumpy man that he was when we left his post in 2000, but seemed to have a glow of excitement and vision in his face. He seemed almost childish in his reaction to the crowd’s adoring calls and applause. He stepped up to the open car door and with a strong swing of his hand, he slammed it closed in front of him, and bullied his way through the crowd of security guards around the trunk of the car. He was heading straight toward the barricades and the crowd behind them and I was front and center in the swooning crowd.

Yeltsin was growing bigger and bigger in the viewfinder of camera and when I finally realised that he walking directly toward me I could see only his face and shoulders in the little window of my camera. In the late 1980’s, the Goodwill Games between the USA and the Soviet Union had been held in Seattle. I had learned a few Russian phrases that I had used every now and then when I met a group of athletes on the streets of downtown. They were uncomplicated greetings, a few adjectives, yes, no, and “my name is” etc., etc. As Yeltsin came within two steps of me, I let the camera fall and dangle on its chord around my neck as I stuck out my hand, looked him straight in the eye and blurted out in poor Russian, “Hello, how are you?”

He was pleasantly surprised and slapped his hand into mine and said something back to me which I didn’t understand. He gave me a smile, a firm handshake and a slap on my left shoulder before he moved on to the numerous other hands waiting to shake his. My camera could not take photos fast enough! Yeltsin climbed over the waist high fence in one large stride and mixed right into the crowd. He shook the hand of anybody and everybody who wanted to wish him well, and even kissed two babies. Then at the urging of his security team he began back to the waiting car. As he walked backwards to the waiting limousine he shouted “New York” to the crowd and made a motion of an airplane arcing over the ocean towards New York City, and he then shouted “United Nation.”  Then with one big wave of both of his hands high over his head, he disappeared behind the bullet-proof tinted glass and sped away, with police sirens wailing, on his way to the world’s power seat at the General Assembly of the United Nations.

I was not the only person taken off guard by Yeltsin’s disregard for his personal safety. The police and body guards scrambled from all over the street to get next to him as he turned and twisted through the crowd, bending down to say hello to even the smallest of well-wishers. Those who were taken the most off guard were the photographers and reporters who were sent there to get a few good pictures of Boris Nicholaievich while he was in London. After Yeltsin’s motorcade was gone a number of professional photographers came quickly to the crowd and began asking if anybody had had a chance to get good photos of the man of the hour. As I was standing at the front of the barricades I was asked directly if I had been able to get two or three clear pictures of the Russian President. I was reluctant to tell them anything because I wanted these photos and nobody was going to take them away from me! I finally admitted to a photographer from Reuters that I believed that I had been able to take a number of pictures straight on and then quite a few of him with the crowd while he was shaking hands with others…and that my film was in fact black & white.  This news made several photographers very eager to get my pictures and they began bidding for my film.

I refused to sell the film that now contained what I considered to be an irreplaceable treasure. The photographers wanted to take the film right out of my camera and give me 25 to 50 pounds for the roll. The money sounded great, but I refused. The more I refused, the more money was being offered. When  the photographer from Reuters realised that I was not going to let the film out of my possession, he invited me to come down to Fleet Street to deliver the film myself to the darkroom. He invited me for a tour of the Reuters News Service while the negatives were developed and would pay me 50 pounds per suitable photo and I could keep the negatives. He scrawled his name and direct telephone number on the back of an envelope and asked me to meet him at his office no later than 2.00pm, or else the opportunity would be lost for the Sunday morning papers.

I arrived at the Reuters building in the heart of the London news district at a quarter to two. The reception desk would not let me and my two classmates pass as she did not believe the story that I had taken better pictures of Boris Yeltsin than their in-house photographers. I showed her the envelope that their photographer had given me and asked her to phone his direct line and verify our story. She would not. I had to find a telephone myself and phone my contact to have him come down and meet us.

I delivered my film directly to the darkroom manager as was promised, and my name and phone number was put on the envelope before it was taken away for processing. In the meantime my classmates and I were given a tour of this news-powerhouse’s news floor, the “wire room” and the photography labs. The rooms all bustled with nervous, almost frantic activity of reporters fighting time for their cut off times. Phones chirped, keyboards rustled and printers churned. They were like a hive of bees with each one of them busy with their own task, paying no attention to the bee in the next honeycomb, who could very well be working on something completely different and unrelated. Their worlds began and ended with their own stories. Creation, Existence and Judgement in three hours’ time. We benignly observed the creation and deterioration of several solar systems in the time that we waited for word on the photographs.

Finally the word came down that the negatives were ready. We found the darkroom manager where we had left him and he showed me the negatives displayed on a light board. Five of the frames had been tagged with small pieces of red tape on the margin.  I was counting the cash and imagining my photograph of the Russian president on the front page of the London Times!

The dark room manager began to critique the photos. “These are fine photographs. You used some very fine film. These are great head and shoulder shots. Can’t believe they let you this close to the man.” I held my breath. The fellow continued, “thing is though, I showed these photographs to the editor and I’m afraid he cannot use any of them. He was hoping to have pictures of Mr. Yeltsin with somebody in the crowd or shaking hands with somebody.” Visions of fame and fortune quickly evaporated, “I’m sorry son…you were just too close!”